Social Horror

Some books get you thinking in ways you don’t expect.  That’s one of the pleasures of reading.  Lindsey Decker’s Transnationalism and Genre Hybridity in New British Horror Cinema may sound terribly specific—there are a lot of qualifiers in that title—but it actually has some very broad implications.  I was reading it specifically from the horror angle for a project I’m currently working on, but I was surprised at the social commentary I found while doing so.  One of Decker’s main ideas is to show that British horror is, well, transnational while maintaining its Britishness.  She focuses mainly on five films in the book, only two of which I’ve seen.  Very aware of the history of British cinema, she points out many characteristic features and situations that make British horror what it is.

The social commentary comes in when discussing “hoodie” horror films.  These are movies showing how the working class, particularly the youth, are dangerous and anti-society.  The more I read the more it occurred to me that imperialist, capitalist systems are built on the corpses of the poor.  Even good kids from bad situations have difficulty getting ahead in life and those above them on the “social ladder” more or less despise them and make policies to keep them in poverty.  This leads to anger and resentment, and often, in reality, this spills over into violence.  It all comes down to those who benefit from the system refusing to make it more equitable.  When the inevitable happens—those pressured without sufficient means boil over—they are blamed for their own circumstances.

Having grown up in a working class system and having struggled all my life to somehow maintain a comfortable existence for my family, I know the kinds of obstacles faced.  In my particular case, retirement is not a likely outcome.  I’ve worked, except for (and often even) when I was in higher education, since fourteen.  I’ve seen others with connections, educated parents or influential friends, get ahead.  I’ve also watched while many of us get shunted aside because, well, who are you?  Some people wonder why I watch horror.  There are many reasons for it, and at times I think maybe I’ve seen enough.  But then I look around at the corpse-strewn foundations of our current system and I see how reality plays into that fear.  Decker, I’m pretty sure, was meaning for her words to apply to mainly the fiction of horror, but there was a different kind of hybridity there as well, at least for me.


The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.


Wicker Back

The dilemma of my eclectic interests sometimes runs up against the natural slowness of publishing.  My book on The Wicker Man has been given the green light by Auteur Publishing and should be out next year.  I just received the readers’ reports and they were positive enough to make me blush.  The thing is, I submitted the manuscript back in January and I’ve nearly finished writing my next book since then.  It’s on a different topic for which I’ve been collecting sources since January.  I really hope this next one won’t publish with an academic press.  The endless rounds of revision from peer review can wear a body out.  Reviewers, you see, have university jobs.  Libraries at their fingertips.  Sabbaticals.  (I work with authors who won’t write unless they have one of the latter.) Now my reading shifts back to Summerisle.

For those of us with 925s that get a paltry number of holidays per year (which are spent holidaying) and paid like most working stiffs, with no academic library access, this can present somewhat of a challenge.  I see peer reviews all the time.  Academics so deeply into the subject that they don’t (can’t) think of the practicalities.  When I see a reviewer write that a book is ready for publication, but if the author could only restructure the whole thing and approach it from this angle instead… I have to chuckle.  During my teaching career I worked in situations that didn’t allow for sabbaticals.  Even among academia those given such rare benefits are privileged.  It’s a wonder that so many books get written, all things considered.

Like waking from a dream world, I suddenly have to downshift to a previous project.  I haven’t really thought much about the Wicker Man since January.  My next book, which is eclectic, has been slowly gestating over the months.  My reading has been geared towards it and is financed personally.  I’ve tried contacting the local college and university libraries.  I can’t borrow, or do inter-library loan, so the weird resources I need I have to buy.  Preferably used.  One thing reviewers like to do is point out new resources.  And yes, I have to agree that my argument would be stronger with them.  I have a strategy to the way I write my books, now that I’ve found a receptive readership, so none of this is mishap, I hope.  (Ironically, now I get quite a few readers of my revised dissertation asking me questions about ancient West Asian studies.)  That trireme paddled from shore long ago.  I’ve moved my current project to another burner, and you’ll be hearing more about The Wicker Man in coming weeks.  Next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary, so I have a deadline that I just can’t miss. It’s time to get reacquainted with an old friend.


Stay Safe

I’m not an impulse buyer.  Having grown up poor, I tend to walk into stores with a list firmly in hand and I don’t deviate from it.  Advertising has virtually no impact.  I don’t pay attention to ads unless they’re for things I know I need, and even then I shut them out most of the time.  I do let my guard down in independent bookstores, however.  So it was that I found in Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Your Guide To Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village.  It was totally an impulse buy, easily read in a sunny afternoon in a caboose motel.  Or a rainy afternoon in an English manor house.  Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper have produced a wonderfully witty illustrated guide here.  It helps to have lived in the United Kingdom for a few years.

Shelved face out in the thriller section, it’s a great opportunity for murder-mystery, gothic literature, horror movie fan types to laugh at themselves.  Some parts are snort out loud funny.  Okay, so I was on staycation and being a bit free with cash for a change, but I’m sure I will keep this one near my desk and turn back to it from time to time.  Maureen Johnson is known for her young adult novels and Jay Cooper is a children’s book illustrator.  Their talents, however, work together incredibly well for this slightly naughty guilty pleasure read.  The Wicker Man even gets a nod or two.  Something that those who disdain horror don’t often realize is that it quite frequently has its own sense of humor.  It’s an intelligent genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  At times it does, of course, but those of us who are fans can tell fantasy from real life.  Maybe.

Independent bookstores are starting to make a comeback.  A significant part of our population isn’t on board with retailers trying to convert everyday life to the metaverse.  We want to hear our music with the occasional pop and microphone hiss.  We want to drive our own cars.  We want to browse in actual bookstores.  Given my buying record online, I have to laugh every time I look at the recommendations.  The electronic world brain doesn’t know me very well at all.  It assumes it knows why I bought that ladder or that round blank four-inch stamped electrical cover.  Some of us play in nontraditional ways with such things.  And we get ideas from wandering into independent bookstores.  As long as they’re not in quaint English villages.


Devils and Days

The kind of devil envisioned by Andrew Michael Hurley in Devil’s Day may not be the traditional one, but it’s scary nevertheless.  In his follow-up novel to The Loney, Hurley demonstrates that he knows the devil can still be frightening.  The Endlands, in northern England are hemmed in by the moors.  The landscape plays such a commanding role here that this can only be folk horror.  And it fits folk horror to a tee.  Tradition, an unchanging life in a land untouched by technology, and forbidding moors where survival is difficult, all amid an English sensibility brings this tale into the folk category neatly.  As should be clear already, Hurley is well aware that religion and horror belong together.  This novel makes their companionship clear.

John Pentecost (note the name) has decided that he and his young, expectant wife—both of whom hold professional jobs—are going to move back to the family sheep farm.  The death of John’s grandfather means that his own father is left to run the farm alone.  Knowing that he belongs there and that his unborn child will need to tend the farm when he dies, a visit to help with the gathering of the sheep, and the celebration of Devil’s Day, turns into a lifelong commitment.  At the same time, the devil has been body-hopping as sheep are killed and family members die and a family of bullies cause more harm than their due.  There’s an inevitability to all of this and at the end you’re not really sure who the devil really is.

The story builds slowly.  By the day of the gathering you really have trouble putting it down.  Putting the Devil into a story can be a dicey proposition.  It’s been done successfully a handful of times, but that doesn’t make it an easy sell.  Our worldview has moved beyond a literal netherworld and the theology that accompanies it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t spot legitimate evil in the world.  Or that evil isn’t often vested in the garments of righteousness.  Ways of thinking that jeopardize others for theological purposes that simply don’t match what we know to be just and fair.  Powerful exploiting the weak.  Wealthy taking advantage of the poor.  Bullies getting their way through brute force.  In this novel the devil is active in a number of characters for a short time.  And you never know where that devil might turn up next.


Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Beauty of Ruins

One of the things I most miss about living in Scotland is the relative dearth of stone ruins in my home country.  In no way to diminish the culture of American Indians, there’s a particular poignancy about stone—which is supposed to be forever—falling apart.  As a homeowner I’ve discovered that you constantly have to repair to keep any kind of building up—something better suited to those with more money than we have.  In any case, my memories of Scotland quite often center on ruined castles and the gothic dreams that accompanied visiting them.  I can’r recall how many we actually had a chance to explore, but it was many.  And not only castles, but other crumbling structures, including monasteries.  Monasteries are, if possible, even more gothic in ruin.

On a rare sunny day this spring I visited the remains of Bethlehem Steel’s silent behemoth.  This industrial powerhouse took up much of the valley dividing the south side of Bethlehem from the older, more genteel colonial part of town.  While these ruins are modern—the factory shut down only in 1995—and steel, it nevertheless caters to gothic sensibilities.  There is a raised platform that allows visitors to examine the exterior from a safe distance, but still close enough to get a sense of its enormity.  The great steel furnaces and blowers and train cars are rusty after nearly three decades of sitting in the elements.  The roofs are falling in on some of the buildings.  Others have been repurposed or replaced with contemporary businesses.  Walking through, however, you can’t help but to imagine past lives.  This was hard, dangerous work.  For most it meant small rewards.  A living wage.  A modest house.

The Bethlehem Steel stacks are a landmark.  Allentown and Bethlehem merge into one another and out driving backroads it’s sometimes hard to tell which you’re in.  Once you spot the steel stacks from afar, however, you know where Bethlehem is.  Like a star guiding magi, the ruins proclaim that something significant once happened here.  Lives in Scottish castles, I expect, were often boring.  Our “something new every second” culture didn’t exist and news traveled slowly.  There was surely humdrum jobs in Bethlehem Steel as well.  Days when remembering that during World War One this factory produced a battleship per day.  Or when the realization that Manhattan’s skyscrapers couldn’t have existed without the I-beam developed in this plant.  There’s a sense of history about such places.  What makes them fascinating is that they’re falling apart.


Earth Haunting

I’m still not sure what I saw.  I’m not even sure how I learned about it (it was likely either Theofantastique or Horror Homeroom), but In the Earth is a very strange film.  I can’t say it’ll be on my shelf of favorites—there’s a little too much Wolf Creek here for that—but I can say it’s something I’ll be thinking about for some time.  Body horror isn’t my favorite, but I do like to remind myself periodically of the dangers of going into the woods.  Released just last year, In the Earth is a pandemic-response film that critics say is funny (I kind of missed that aspect, I’ll admit) about a scientist and a ranger who are journeying into a particularly fecund woodland outside Bristol for research.  Martin, the lead, has an ulterior motive in that the researcher already in the woods is a former girlfriend.

Martin heads out with Alma, the ranger, and they fall into a trap set by Zach, and I suppose the humor comes in Zach’s constant observations that Martin’s wounds have gotten worse and require backwoods surgery.  The couple escape Zach (who’s clearly deranged) after he drugs them and poses them in odd clothes to propitiate the spirit of the woods.  They find their way to Olivia (the researcher/former girlfriend) and her research station only to learn Zach is her ex-husband.  And here things get weirder.  To communicate with the earth, Olivia first used an old ritual book that includes the Malleus Maleficarum and additional material.  This ancient book tells how to decipher the language of the earth through the use of light and sound with the aid of a runic standing stone that’s on no map.

Religion plays a major part in the horror here.  Olivia and Zach both want to sacrifice Martin at the runic stone.  Anyone who can watch this without seeing echoes of Abraham and Isaac probably has fewer religious nightmares than I do.  Martin, they all say, is so innocent and straightforward.  Alma keeps on trying to get Martin out of the woods but either Zach or Olivia, or the forest itself via a toxic cloud of mushroom spores, prevents them.  There are so many flashing strobes and intercut images from the spores and oddly disturbing sounds to make out what really happens at the end of the film, but one thing is clear.  Zach and Olivia have taken a religious text too literally and doing so leads them to sacrifice the innocent.  Almost biblical, no?


Wicker Redux

The Wicker Man (1973) is a cult classic.  If it had had proper distribution and promotion it might’ve become a more mainstream hit when it was released.  Instead it was a slow burn.  Once it reached cult status controversy grew.  The movie doesn’t acknowledge, but was clearly influenced by, the novel Ritual by David Pinner.  I reviewed the novel earlier, and it isn’t particularly great.  The movie changes so much that it maybe was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the novel.  Several years later the director, Robin Hardy, decided to novelize the film.  His The Wicker Man also credits Anthony Shaffer because a good deal of the dialogue is lifted straight from the screenplay Shaffer wrote.  But the novelization also changes things.  That means there really is no novel that gives the full story of the film.

The creative process is never-ending.  Anyone who’s had a story published knows the tinkering that goes on, even after it appears in print.  The last word’s never truly that.  It takes restraint to leave something alone.  So Hardy wrote one of the more important characters out of his novel and wrote in another who seems to have very little connection to the story itself.  I’m still not sure what the point of adding him might have been.  Incidents that seem to be bracing for a sequel are present, and indeed Hardy wrote a spiritual successor that became a less impressive movie some years later.  Sometimes you do get it right the first time around.

Not that the movie is perfect—none are—but it has held up considerably well, growing in stature over the years.  A novelist, however, tends to have a deft touch that seems to be lacking here.  There’s a great deal of telling instead of showing.  Hardy’s Howie almost becomes a Mary Sue.  Tying his love of birds into the plot of the novel would’ve been one such deft touch.  Instead we have here a serviceable novel with much that’s familiar and even some that is strange and provocative.  It does restore some of the famously edited footage from the first cut of the film.  It tries to make Howie’s religious conviction clearer.  Changing parts of a story comes with the territory of those who spin yarns.  Hardy never really rose again to the heights he achieved in directing The Wicker Man.  It’s no wonder, then, that he felt compelled to return to it in literary form.


Devils and Witches

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man.  As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another.  I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors.  You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper.  That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.

The book is quite good.  Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well.  His treatment is quite insightful.  The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew.  Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer,  mostly of women.  Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths.  As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away.  For this reason many critics found the film distasteful.  I personally found it hard to watch.  Education isn’t always easy.

There’s quite a bit of film history in the book.  Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context.  Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film.  Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it.  Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror.  In this case it’s due to the violence.  For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity.  They’re easier to walk away from.  Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained.  Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment.  Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins.  His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive. 


Celts and Gods

We’re accustomed to religions being written out.  Indeed, many world religions have sacred texts from the Avestas to Dianetics.  Some ancient cultures, however, didn’t have written traditions and when they disappeared, as all cultures eventually do, their religion became nearly impossible to understand, or reconstruct.  Miranda Green has tried to provide, in written form, a summation of her understanding of The Gods of the Celts.  Celtic mythology, interestingly, had long ago caught the attention of New Religious Movements, as well as the New Age movement.  Much of the Wiccan calendar is based on Celtic religion and many New Age practices trace their roots to the ideas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales lost to the mists of time.  What we actually do know about these cultures is about as fascinating as what’s been reconstructed.

Green’s study shows us a religion that grew out of profound respect for nature as well as human prowess at fighting.  (The “fighting Irish,” indeed may touch on an historical pulse.)  Celtic gods reflected a large swath of thinking throughout western, and parts of eastern, Europe.  Their names may be less familiar to us, and some may well have been lost to the vicissitudes of time, but there was a vibrant devotion to them that went as far as human sacrifice.  We know that it occurred, but it probably wasn’t frequent.  Although polytheistic, Celts were moral in their own understanding of their world.  Morals tend to come from human understanding of their place in a world they didn’t create.  How do you live in somebody else’s property?

Unlike the more literate Greeks, or even the Semitic religions on which they drew for their stories, we have no narrative Celtic mythology.  We have fragments and glimpses.  Nobody had a recorder while sitting around the fire, recounting the activities of the gods.  Later, sources such as the Mabinogion were written down, which surely held some memories of such fireside tales.  The originals, however, we’ll probably never have.  Such is the way of conquered peoples.  What the Romans started the Christians finished.  We’re left with some deities, such as Brigit, made into saints, but their stories forgotten and not originally written down.  Our time looking back isn’t ill-spent.  It teaches us who we are and guides who we might become.  Our own violent politicians, threatening to murder those who are different, clearly have learned nothing from history, ancient or modern.


Mag Dash

I don’t do much magazine reading.  Back when I had more time (mainly before buying a house), there were a few with which I attempted to keep up.  Mainly, however, I’d buy a particular issue that I wanted to keep.  I suspect that’s because I’m a book reader and my time for pure reading is limited.  Strange thing for a professor/editor hybrid to write, but there you have it.  Each year I “pledge” a number of books to Goodreads to keep me honest, and achieving that goal adds a kind of friendly pressure on my reading time.  Magazines don’t count, and mostly I never read the whole thing.  My current book project is an analysis of the movie The Wicker Man.  This led to some magazine reading.

Horror movies, especially, have been traditionally treated as ephemera with little lasting cultural value.  Fan magazines, therefore, often provide most of the periodical treatment for some of these “B movies.”  The Wicker Man suffered legendary distribution problems and that may have been what prompted Cinefantastique to devote all its feature space to this particular movie back in 1977 (the movie came out four years earlier and was still struggling).  The article is a lengthy one, not quite to the extent of The Atlantic, but still several pages.  It was the origin of the much repeated epithet “the Citizen Kane of horror films.”  To read this I had to locate a copy of the magazine.  There was, fortunately, a seller in Beloit, Wisconsin who wasn’t extortionate (thank you!).  My experience in buying print materials from the seventies has often proven the opposite.

Occasionally someone glimpsing my books will cattily ask, “Have you read them all?”  No.  But then not all print matter is for reading all the way through.  Reference materials, for example, are consulted.  The way my mind works, I need to keep things around so I can find them again.  Studies have shown that retention for electronic media isn’t as reliable as it is for print.  That may change some day as we evolve more and more into extensions of our machines, but for now I use it to justify keeping books.  Since I can’t predict the future, I never know when some forgotten tome might come up again in a new project.  That has happened a few times already while working on my small book on The Wicker Man.  And that includes magazines with good articles.  This one is a keeper.


Haunted Landscapes

The Devil’s Advocates series consists of short books focused on a single horror film.  For horror fans they’re a great resource, as they will hopefully also be in teaching settings.  David Evans-Powell’s recent volume on The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a fine example of just how intelligent horror can be, and how it can be interpreted so.  This particular movie from the early seventies was never a major revenue earner, but that in itself is a lesson.  Influence, measured in smaller scales, can still create an impact on people’s lives.  Evans-Powell’s treatment takes several angles, each of which casts light on this unusual movie.  Reading this little book brought quite a few ideas to mind, both about social structures and religion.  The film is set in the early 18th century, with a city judge who is problematic actually saving the day.

Since The Blood on Satan’s Claw is folk horror, quite a bit of the discussion focuses on landscape.  Paying close attention to landscape reveals hidden information.  It becomes almost a character.  At the risk of too many spoilers, the film is about uncovering Satan—or a demon, it’s not terribly clear on the point—from a farm field.  As this evil character gains power the local children are drawn to him and the village authorities are unaware of what’s going on in the nearby woods.  Landscapes reveal and conceal as the creature gains power and the children engage in acts of violence.  The response of the judge is a violence of its own.  The movie doesn’t really deliver all that it promises in that regard, but Evans-Powell explains how the film was made and that, in turn, explains some of the rough edges.

Religion and horror go naturally together.  I suppose any film with “Satan” in the title will address religion somehow.  Not all horror is religious, of course, but many of our fears derive from religious subjects.  It’s almost as if as we ceased to fear the landscape—nature having been tamed to some degree—we began to find fear in religious thinking.  Put another way, religion has kept fear alive.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw was never a major, big-budget release.  Except for fans of British horror it has largely escaped notice.  Folk horror, because of its recent revival, brought interest back to some of these older efforts to explore such themes, many of them implying a religion hidden in the landscape.  This book provide a useful map in exploring that territory.


Religious Dinosaurs

Dippy is, apparently, a common name for pet diplodocuses.  The statue of a diplodocus outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is fondly known as “Dippy,” as is the fossilized remains of one such dinosaur from London’s Natural History Museum.  The London Dippy is on tour, or at least has been.  I learned about the fact that Dippy was in Norwich Cathedral just a day or so after the exhibit closed (I wouldn’t have been able to make it in any case; I mean I haven’t been able to get to the Pittsburgh Dippy and I live in the same state).  There are still plenty of photos on the cathedral’s website.  It’s a striking juxtaposition.  A massive stone building constructed to a medieval conception of God and one of the best examples of evolution, far older than the church on several orders of magnitude, peacefully coexisting.

John Bell Hatcher, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American evangelicalism has a much harder time accepting science.  I’ve been writing about change recently.  One of the changes in western thinking has been to move from the “I told you so” of clerics to the “I can show you evidence” of scientists.  Those who like others to tell them what to think have a difficult time letting go of medieval notions of the world—that it’s flat, and young, and about to end, as if God has a very limited imagination.  We now know that the world has been here far longer than one interpretation of the Bible posits, but that doesn’t make it any easier to have a conversation about it.  Many religions want to claim knowledge that can’t be questioned.  And yet, dinosaurs and cathedrals seem to mix well.

The assumption that those who think differently are evil, or are inspired by evil, is one of the most insidious children of monotheism.  With one God comes the idea of only one way to understand that deity and all other interpretations come from that divinity’s arch-enemy.  It’s a view of the world that struggles with change.  Historians, even those of us who focus on the history of religions, tend to take a long view. It’s possible to trace the development of ideas that have lead to the strange juxtapositions of our modern world.  Apologists so convinced of their interpretation of Genesis that they think the Bible wouldn’t have found dinosaurs worth remarking about, for example, and then cramming them on the ark.  Others, it seems, welcome dinosaurs into cathedrals.  Which is a better way to be humble before God?


Everything’s a Nail

Taking my first, tentative steps into horror analysis, I had read a great many monographs on the subject.  I had watched many horror films over the years, but since my family has no love of the genre, and since habitually under-employed I can’t afford to pay for many, my quota is fairly modest.  I’ve missed out on many.  When I could afford it, I started out with either movies I’d heard of when younger but had never watched, or packs of ultra-cheap B (C or D maybe) movies that nobody has ever heard of.  As I lamented recently, British films were rare—Hammer, which held the English reputation for horror, was the undiscovered country.  Then I saw that Peter Hutchings’ Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film had come out in a second edition.  (The new edition contains three of Hutchings’ other articles as well as the original text.)  I had to read it.

Although I’ve not seen many of the movies discussed in the book (again, access issues) it was fascinating nonetheless.  Hutchings considers the elements of gender and Britishness in his readings of the films and there’s quite a lot there.  Horror is generally seen as a conservative genre (it tends to uphold typical social values) and for many Hammer and other films this meant that male prerogative was important.  Equally important, however, is that horror often disrupts this hierarchy.  There are strong, and even fatal, women here.  Horror embodies the acting out of the complex world of fear between women and men.  The study, as befitting a revised dissertation, is laid out chronologically for the most part.

Some readers of this blog have kindly pointed out ways to access Hammer films in the US.  Now all I need is the time.  I’ve been able to keep up with my reading, at least.  And this was a worthwhile book to read, even without having seen much Hammer.  It surprised me, however, that their list of classic horror wasn’t longer.  Having read about Hammer for many years,  I suspected their output was massive.  Instead it was mostly just impactful.  The essays following the main body of the book make the point that British horror was/is distinctive.  These days a lot of international cooperation takes place in the movie industry, and national cinema is becoming more global.  We could use a little less nationalism just about now.  So I’ll continue my quest for Hammer and try to make my way through the movies I really should add to my repertoire.  It’s a good book that can make you want to do that.